A Passage to India's Trout

  • By: Eric Reichbaum
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India is a place of sensory overload, an attack of scents and sounds, colors and tastes, people in every direction and mass confusion, truly an amazing place with never a dull moment; a day cannot go by without an adventure, be it great or small. These adventures however, are the adventures of the city. Adventures such as: being attacked by a group of child beggars, dodging piles of human and animal feces, averting death in a taxi cab, and the worst: having our town bombed by terrorists.

These are not the type of adventures that this writer enjoys. I prefer carving fresh powder at 15,000 feet, or perhaps catching a wild brown trout in the snowmelt rivers of the Himalayas. For this, I had to get out of the cities, away from the madness—up to the mountains. I have found that no matter where I am in the world, I am always drawn to the mountains. Other than the obvious aesthetic qualities and activities the mountains provide, there is a certain sense of life there that exists nowhere else in the landscapes of our globe. The people in the mountains are another breed from the city dwellers. They are calmer, friendlier, and generally happier. This was certainly true in the mountains of India.

Manali is what they call a hill station town, 12 hours from Delhi by bus, gaining elevation the whole way. When we arrived in the town I quickly found a tourist agency to book a ski trip and a fishing trip. The man behind the desk was visibly delighted that we wanted to go fishing, claiming he was the best trout fishing guide in all of India.

He pointed to a picture on the wall. It was of him and three gigantic brown trout. It looked like the pictures you see of fishermen in the 1940's and 50's in America holding trout too large to fit into their creels. These were larger than any browns I've ever caught, and aside from a few privately stocked streams and ponds, larger than any browns I had seen anyone else catch. His name was Naushad Kaludi, and he promised to take me to the river that gave him those three large browns. I paid the man immediately and made plans to meet him in a couple days, bright and early.

I managed to convince two friends, non-fishers, to come along. So after a long night (Manali knows how to have a good time) we woke up at sunset to meet our guide. He drove a fire engine-red four wheel drive truck that provided us with the bumpiest ride yet in our Asian travels.

A little more than two hours from Manali we arrived at the Baragram River. Naushad, our guide, had brought along four or five rods, ranging from 8 feet spin casting rods to the 12 foot long rod so popular in Asia, yet so oversized and unnecessary that one would be laughed off a stream for using one in America. He promised me that in the afternoon we would stop at his friend's to get me a fly rod. So for the first time since I first picked up a fly rod, I hit the stream with live bait, bait that Naushad paid his wife and intern to travel a great distance to collect: stonefly nymphs. I explained to him that I tie imitations of these flies and use them instead of the real thing. As my friend Mark Belden says, "We're trying to trick the fish, not feed them."

Amused with the situation, I put a stonefly on my hook, cast it out into a riffle, and sure enough landed a trout on my first cast. It would be the biggest fish we caught in our two days, but something didn't feel right to me catching a trout with live bait. Maybe I'm a snob, but hey, we're trying to trick the fish, right?

After our guide and I landed a fish each within the first few minutes of fishing, all four of us we're skunked out until lunch. We ate some noodles at a roadside restaurant, and continued on a couple more hours down to the town of Largi to fish the Tirthan River. We checked into our streamside guesthouse there, the Hotel Trout Valley, owned by Khem Bharti. Khem told me he had a fly rod and some flies somewhere, and that he would go find them. He came back with something I didn't even know existed. It was a telescoping graphite rod, about ten feet long. It was twice as thick at the butt section than a normal rod, and the reel was held into place by a piece of foam. The fly line was some sort of braided material. I couldn't help but laugh at the sight of the thing, but I figured I'd give it a try. The flies that Khem had were all wet flies from Kashmir, brightly colored and very Ray Bergman-esque. They were so pretty I almost felt bad using them.

The Tirthan is a beautiful river with the kind of great dark pools and fast riffles that sets a fisherman’s heart a-beatin’. I managed to catch three more trout that night, all browns, all beautifully colored, and all naturally reproducing. The most amazing thing about the fishing in India is that the rivers aren't stocked. These fish are holdovers from the 1800's when the British brought them over to entertain themselves.

This is a country where tens of thousands of people die each day from hunger, yet they have the sense not to over-fish for fear of fishless rivers the next season, only killing what they need to eat. They protect their fisheries by having closed seasons for spawning, limiting kills to 9-inch minimums, and enforcing the rules by having wardens patrol the rivers constantly. Their fisheries conservation is a breath of fresh air in a country that seems to be otherwise lawless and without regard for the environment. It might be cliché, but I do believe that fishermen are part of that special breed of people more in touch with their environment than others, especially there in the pristine mountains of India, high above the crazy, crowded, dirty cities below.

Throughout our two days on the rivers in Northern India everyone managed to land some nice trout, including my two friends Dave and Liz. Most of my friend’s can’t understand my obsession with fly fishing, so it’s nice to share the experience with them, and who knows, maybe even turn a perfectly good citizen into a trout bum like me.

Naushad and Khem were intrigued with my ability to out-fish them with the flies, and Naushad was going to look into buying some fly rods for his guide service.

As for me, I’m working for a month in Korea, saving up to fund my next fishing trip, I think Patagonia seems nice.

Eric Reichbaum is a freelance writer who has traveled extensively through Asia.